Gamification is grounded in the self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000). It supports psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Gamification is applied in a variety of fields including business, education, and health care, and it often relies on technology.
The first study, in this selection, was published by the American Psychological Association in 2014. The study reviews the emotional, cognitive, and social impact of playing video games (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014). The study concludes that playing video games has benefits and a large potential for teaching new forms of thought and behavior. The research question was aimed at potential benefits of a wide variety of games including violent shooter games, and whether playing these games may boost learning, health, and social skills. The purpose of the research was to provide a balance to already existing research in this area. In view that the majority of findings available to Granic (2014) at the time were of negative impact of gaming, Granic and her team set out to research possible positive influences of gaming. The negative findings often focus on the potential harm related to violence, addition, and depression (Granic et al., 2014).
The peer-reviewed article was designed as archival research of existing literature. The significance of the study is in the contrast of conclusions to the negative understanding of games in existing research. Games were linked with addiction, aggression, and depression (Anderson et al., 2010; Ferguson & Olson, 2013; Lemola et al., 2011). Such research sometimes was reactionary to tragic events such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (Obama & Biden, 2013), where $10 million was allocated by the government to investigate negative effects of playing violent games. The significance of this research to gamification is in mitigating the negative perceptions of games not simply for entertainment but for other constructive use.
A critical evaluation of the study starts with the professional modesty of the authors, which helps to establish a compelling case. When commenting on the opposite view of existing research regarding effects of playing games, the authors are respectful by noting “we recognize the value of that research” (Granic et al., 2014). Presenting an opposing view to a culturally accepted low regard for video gaming is a professionally challenging task.
Further, assertions in the paper are well documented and linked to peer-reviewed research. The study notes that while games have been studied for a long time in human history, video games provide a new platform for connecting people across geographical distances, social, socioeconomic, generation gaps, and even language barriers. Therefore, the potential of technology-aided games is unique in history.
The second study on gamification under consideration of this paper is called “Assessing the Effects of Gamification in the Classroom: A Longitudinal Study on Intrinsic Motivation, Social Comparison, Satisfaction, Effort, and Academic Performance” (Hanus & Fox, 2015). The design of the study was to compare two courses, a total of 71 students, one with gamification applied and one with traditional approach of instruction. Within 16 weeks of the class duration, four surveys were issued to students. The study had five hypotheses: (a) Students in the gamified course will compare more frequently with others over time, (b) Students in the gamified course will have lower motivation than those in the non-gamified course over time, (c) Students in the gamified course will be less satisfied than those in the non-gamified course over time, (d) Students in the gamified course will put forth less effort than those in the non-gamified course over time, (e) Students in the gamified course will feel less empowered that they can succeed than those in the non-gamified course over time.
The results of the surveys, which were based on a 5- to 7-point scale depending on the question, were compiled and processed through statistical models to arrive at statistically significant results. In addition to four surveys, two exams were issued to students in both groups. The results confirmed all hypotheses. The conclusion of the researchers was that the specific application of gamification in the study, which included leaderboard and badges, did not improve intrinsic motivation or exam results. To the contrary, intrinsic motivation in the gamified course decreased and final exams also demonstrated lower scores. The authors provide possible reasons for this phenomenon by mentioning negative effects of social comparison, which affects motivation and performance in educational settings (Christy & Fox, 2014).
A critical evaluation of the study finds a problematic application of the self-determination theory in the study (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The researchers mentioned that students were enrolling in an elective course; therefore, this was understood as an autonomous action. While elective courses are a subject for student selection, the number of choices may be limited, and once the course is underway, participation in the course is no longer elective. The researchers admit: “future researchers may explore how voluntary participation in gamified classrooms influences outcomes” (Hanus & Fox, 2015). Therefore, once the students were enrolled in the class, the leaderboard and badges were required. This in turn, limited autonomy of the participants and decreased intrinsic motivation.
Another element of self-determination theory is relatedness. The game mechanics applied to the courses in this research study, leaderboard and badges, primarily promote competition and likely have negative social impact, which goes against the self-determination theory, which indicates creating positive relationships and maintaining them. Finally, competence element of the self-determination theory was also poorly implemented in the design. With only two exams, students were unable to track their progress in a granular way. The increase of competence was not indicated to students in a responsive and timely manner.
A critical look at the list of hypotheses in the study, as well as predictions provided by the researchers, indicates negative expectations. In view of motivational studies indicating that motivation and emotion in the classroom has a reciprocal nature (Skinner & Belmont, 1993), it may be possible that the results of the study followed the predictions. Especially in classroom experiments, the motivation of the instructor affects greatly the experience of the study participants.
The third empirical study on gamification is presented by Barata, Gama, Jorge, & Gonçalves entitled Engaging engineering students with gamification (2013). The study asked if a master’s level college course, called Multimedia Content Production, would benefit from gamification strategies. In order to test the hypothesis, results from the same course from a previous year that was taught in the traditional approach were compared to the course with gamification applied to it. The study spanned two years in time. The gamification elements included levels, scoring, leaderboards, challenges, and badges. In addition to academic results, the researchers collected satisfaction data through a survey.
The results of the study indicated higher attendance and participation levels in the gamified course (Barata et al., 2013). In addition, students considered the gamified course as more motivating, interesting, and easier to learn than other courses. MannWhitney’s U test was utilized to compare average attendance resulting in an 11% increase.
A critical look at the study establishes that the MCP course had engagement problems, which is why it was selected for the gamification study. The study mentions that faculty increased their posts by 373%, which means that not only students were affected by the MCP game. In fact, the authors noted that the instructors were “getting excited” by the MCP game (Barata et al., 2013). Therefore, the reciprocal nature of engagement (Skinner & Belmont, 1993) likely applies to this study. It may be that gamification contributes to the results in some measure but that active and engaged faculty contribute even more.
The fourth empirical study of gamification is a follow-up to the above study by the same authors entitled Identifying student types in a gamified learning experience (Barata, Gama, Jorge, & Gonçalves, 2014). An attempt is made to answer the question if students in a gamified class match personality types, or player types, which could make it easier to design future experiences that match their preferences. The researchers analyzed course activity data including grades, attendance data, and Moodle activity data. This, in turn, was processed through a number of clustering algorithms. Weka was used, a collection of machine learning algorithms, including K-Means, COBWEB, DBSCAN, Expectation-Maximization.
Three types of student player types were identified: Achievers, Disheartened, and Underachievers. Achievers demonstrated highest mean final grades and highest attendance. The Disheartened demonstrated much lower grades but still high attendance. However, their performance fell drastically around day 45 and did not recover. The final group, the Underachievers, demonstrated the lowest grades and the lowest attendance. The third study type was a reverse of the first one.
A critical look at the study brings up the problem of a data sample size. In order to draw conclusions, which can be generalized over a larger population, more than one year of a single course enrollment should be studied. Since conclusions of this second study cover student personalities, not just course performance, the data sample is too small. A larger set of students would help to create clusters or profiles of activity, which would have scientific significance.
Finally, the study considered grades and attendance in suggesting student types. However, the self-determination theory includes relatedness and autonomy as key areas, not just competence. Therefore, more study types may be canceled in valuing relationships with other students and faculty or valuing optional elements of the course, without specific rewards included.
A major study on game personalities provides a more detailed landscape of player profiles and includes achievers, killers (or influencers), socializers, and explorers (Bartle, 1996). The four player types match self-determination theory in a more complete way. Achievers and killers are motivated by competence. Socializers are motivated by relatedness and autonomy. Explorers are motivated by autonomy and competence. Therefore, due to limited focus on grades and attendance in the above study, player personalities were limited to achievement profiles.
The fifth study in gamification considered in this paper is “Gamifying learning experiences: Practical implications and outcomes” (Dominguez et al., 2013). The researchers performed an experiment by programming a Blackboard Learn plug-in and applying it to a course. They further collected qualitative and quantitative data. The design of the study included a control group and the gamified course. The research goal was to find out the cognitive, emotional, and social impact of gamification on students. The research question was whether the scores in a gamified classroom would be higher than the control group and what effects gamification may have on students.
The experiment featured 36 gamified challenges, which were delivered as PDF files. The evaluation of completion was accomplished by students taking screenshots of the solutions and uploading them to Blackboard Learn. The system immediately assumed the correct solution and granted the experience points. Faculty were expected to monitor and verify that the work was actually done correctly. A total of 58 students made up the gamified group.
The analysis of the quantitative data included independent two-sample t tests of initial knowledge of students across groups and demonstrated evidence of no significant difference. One-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) applied to the final examination scores and participation scores were inconclusive in finding scientifically significant differences. However, the same analysis suggests that the gamified group performed well on practical application of knowledge but poorly on written assignments covering the understanding of underlying theoretical concepts. Traditional courseware seemed to perform better in that regard.
The conclusion drawn by the authors of the study was that cognitive impact of gamification is not significant. In terms of qualitative analysis, an important finding was that students disliked competing with other students for game levels. Also, students developed a perception that gamified version of the course would take longer that the traditional one. Therefore, the gamified experience was sometimes abandoned.
Dominquez et al. submits that analysis performed on the experiment suggests that gamification may have “a great emotional and social impact on students” (2013). Breaking down the impact of gamification into affective domain and social activity is very powerful. Instead of focusing on increasing grades in a class, gamification may help in creating social change for inclusive learning environments or in creating positive emotional repository toward the subject matter, which may prove beneficial in selection of programs of study or career.
A critical view on the experiment applauds that students volunteered for the gamified experience, which supports the self-determination concept of autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2000). However, the environment demonstrated limited rigor as screenshots can be easily shared or generated. Therefore, the gamification in the study weakly supported mastery element of self‑determination theory. Instead, it may be possible that some students considered earning rewards by taking shortcuts in acquiring screenshots or sharing them. Since the grade in the class was associated with the gamified activities, the extrinsic motivation may have led some students to consider the most efficient ways of cutting down on time and effort.